We tell the story of the Finnish outlet with one of the most distinctive discographies in electronic music.
In Helsinki's Keilaniemi metro station there's a ceiling sculpture with 280 LED tubes hung from the ceiling and connected by wire. The intended effect is for the tubes to appear to be levitating in a dark void. The sculpture was created (in partnership with Petteri Nisunen) by Grönlund, a contemporary artist who, in his spare time, runs Sähkö Recordings, the label he founded in 1992 with the late musician Mika Vainio. The sculpture serves as a metaphor for Grönlund and Sähkö's role in Finnish music: abstract and sometimes barely there, but part of the fabric. Its genius is simple, and you might not even notice it if you're passing through the station.
Sähkö Recordings (pronounced "sack-uh") is most famous for releasing music by Vainio, a sound artist and techno producer who helped define experimental electronic music from the early '90s through to his death in 2017. With his duo Panasonic (later Pan Sonic), Vainio fused techno, noise and ambient music into fearsome waves of sound. And through his many solo projects, most notably Ø, he built his own frigid and antiseptic sound environment, which even in 2019 sounds like nothing else out there.
Then there's Jimi Tenor, a musician whose work blends jazz, pop and techno. As well as being a core Sähkö artist, Tenor is something of an alternative pop star in Finland. He scored a multi-album contract with Warp Records in the '90s before coming back home to Sähkö.
But it was in Vainio that Grönlund found his true musical partner. Vainio helped Grönlund combine his career in contemporary art, his background in architecture and his love of raving into one of the most distinct and important discographies in electronic music.
Brian Eno once said everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album went out and formed a band. Sähkö and Vainio have the same outsized influence among electronic artists—the label counts many of the most important figures in the scene as fans.
"I know that when they first received Sähkö records at Hard Wax, they had a rapturous reception," said Ian Fenton, a Scot who runs the experimental label Frozen Reeds and has lived in Finland for more than 15 years. "Sähkö is part of a pantheon. If you go into Hard Wax, there are some things that are always cool: Aphex Twin is cool, Detroit techno is cool, reggae is cool. Some kinds of world music. And nothing else. Sähkö is a part of that. There aren't many labels that made that kind of mark."
Sähkö releases techno, though the label also veers off into ambient and experimental music, with sub-labels that release house, jazz and pop music. Records on Sähkö are few and far between, which makes them feel special: each is a mysterious transmission from Helsinki, often packaged with abstract imagery, allowing the sounds to speak for themselves. (The most recent release is an anonymous drone record with only a faded image of a Greenland shark.) Most of the acts on the label are Finnish but there are exceptions made for artists, like Atom™ and Madteo, who fit into the label's distinct sound world.
Grönlund, who speaks slowly with a thick and musical accent, referred to Sähkö as an ongoing "art project," and "an expression of elements that can be found in nature and in your surroundings." The word Sähkö translates to "electricity," and comes from an idea Vainio had to start a restaurant and bar with the same name.
The music on Sähkö tends to be minimalist. Sound is arranged in terms of frequencies and tones, often the very sound of electricity or electrical equipment. (Vainio once said his favourite frequency was 50 Hz—"the frequency of the electric grid, ground noise.") Even early techno from Vainio under his Ø alias was sterile and cloistered, like rave music in an anechoic chamber.
"There are sounds on those records that aren't the kind readily digested by clubs or festivals," Fenton said. "Sähkö took sounds more often heard in areas like sound art and put them in a new context, in a way that transformed what was possible in dance music."
Part of this approach comes from Grönlund's background in architecture. (He studied it but never finished his degree.) Early Sähkö releases came with minimal artwork drawn in clean, geometrical shapes. Even the label's logo, with its undulating waves and straight lines, looks like a cross between a waveform and the set of tools at an architect's table. Some of those records had random holes punched in the centre label, highlighting the record's use as a basic tool: you could put it down on the centre rod in a "wrong" configuration and get different results.